How To Cook The Perfect Turkey

Thanksgiving is on the way – are you in charge of the turkey this year? I have a huge family and host every other year. That means a minimum of 25 people when I have it at my house; some years we’ve had close to 40! I’ve learned a few tips along the way to keep my day running smoothly.

The turkey is the centerpiece in more ways than one. I always think of Chevy Chase cutting open the dried-up turkey in Christmas Vacation. That is not my idea of a perfect turkey.

Luckily, in my family, the turkey is a family affair. I look forward to my dad helping me prep the bird, and my husband prides himself on his carving skills. So let’s look at how to cook the perfect turkey.

How many pounds do I need?

I get this question often and realize it is a topic that many struggle with when planning their Thanksgiving menu. I don’t know what’s worst, too much leftover, or not enough to feed your guests? Not enough for your guests is a good way to be stripped of your hosting privileges.

Since I’ve hosted Thanksgiving many times, I’ve found that just over a pound of turkey per person is best. If you have a large gathering as we do, you might want to get two turkeys. I learned this the hard way. One year I bought a fresh 27-pound turkey, only to get it home and realize it did not fit in my roasting pan. A scene I wish I caught on camera! I solved the issue by using an aluminum roasting pan and bending the edges outward. Then I placed it on a large sheet pan for any overflow of juice (the turkey barely fit in my oven). I now order two smaller turkeys and extra turkey legs for my sister and nephew, who prefer dark meat.

Now that you have the turkey, you have to thaw it in time for the big day!

How to thaw a turkey

Most years I buy a fresh turkey from a local farm out on the east end of Long Island or I order directly from my town butcher. There have been a few years when I used a frozen turkey and they are delicious as well. For frozen turkeys, the preparation begins with fully thawing it. I plan ahead and put the bird in the refrigerator about 4 days before I have to cook him (I write it in my planner, so I don’t forget!). I want a thoroughly thawed turkey. If it is still slightly frozen, you can cook it as is, it just takes a little more time. Check out the perfect cooking time guide here. You can also put it in a sink of cold water. Keep the wrapping on and put it in breast-side down. Change the water every half hour until it’s thawed.

Cooking the perfect turkey

Cooking the turkey in the oven is my favorite way. First I remove the packaging and giblets; rinse my bird with cold water. I cut a lemon in half and use it as a scrubbing tool with coarse sea salt – I scrub the skin. Then I separate the skin by sliding my fingers between the skin and body – careful not to tear the skin – creating a pocket to infuse flavor. Do not skip this step.

Next, rub herb-infused butter into the pocket and on the outside skin. Set it on a rack in the roasting pan breast-side up and dry it well (this helps the skin to crisp nicely). Sprinkle with salt and pepper. I add an additional layer of flavor by cutting two lemons in half and adding them to the empty cavity, along with fresh rosemary, thyme, and sage from my garden. If you don’t grow fresh herbs, they are readily available in most grocery stores. (I like my dressing/stuffing on the side, not in the bird.) Finally, I roughly cut two carrots, two celery stalks, and two large onions and add to the bottom of my roasting pan. Pour 4 cups of chicken broth over the vegetables.

The Perfect Cooking time

Don’t forget to preheat your oven to 450°. Make sure to set the oven rack low enough that the turkey can fit! Then into the oven and turn the heat down to 350o. A thawed bird needs to be cooked for 13 minutes per pound (15 minutes per pound if stuffed).

Every 45 minutes baste the turkey. You can use a baster or spoon and drizzle the juices and liquid all over the turkey. When the cooking time is halfway done, use your meat thermometer to check the breast and thigh. Once it reaches at least 165o, in both areas, it is completely cooked. If it needs more time, you can tent some foil over the breast part to prevent it from drying out.

Before carving

Finally, remove your turkey from the oven and let it rest on the counter for about 15 minutes before carving. If you’re going to use the drippings for gravy, place the bird on a cutting board and save the juices from the pan.

You can also use an oven bag to cook your turkey. These cut down on the cooking time and keep you from having to baste. All you need to do is buy the turkey-size oven bag, prepare according to the above description, put 1 TBSP of flour in the bottom of the bag and some cut up onion and celery, then place the turkey on top. Rub some oil over the skin and season as you want. A little paprika on top will help it brown nicely. Close the bag with the provided tie and cut 6 slits in the closed bag. Roast it according to the weight of the turkey on the chart provided with the bags. You still want the meat to register at least 165o on the meat thermometer to be fully cooked.

Turkey tips:

  1. Buy 1-1 ½ pounds of turkey per person. More if you want leftovers! My favorite “brand” is Butterball. Hands down the most tender.
  2. Thawing can be tricky – 24 hours per every 5 lbs. (so a 20-pounder needs about four days in the frig).
  3. Brine – a turkey can be brined before cooking, and this keeps it very moist.
  4. Stuffing is when the dressing is cooked inside the turkey and dressing is when it’s cooked separately. Cooking it separately cuts down on potential bacteria.
  5. If you cook a frozen turkey, don’t stuff it. A frozen Tom needs extra cooking time and stuffing it will take even longer. **Never deep-fry a frozen turkey.
  6. To ensure your day runs smoothly, calculate your bird’s cooking time the night before. Consider what other dishes need cooking or warming and plan accordingly.
  7. Use a meat thermometer to check for doneness. Needs to read at least 1650 in the thick part of the thigh and in the breast. Check both spots.
  8. The bird needs to rest on the counter after cooking for 15 minutes before you carve it.
  9. Don’t leave the turkey out on the counter for too long. Refrigerate any leftovers within two hours of being cooked; sooner if possible

Related articles:

The Thanksgiving Side Dish That You Need To Make

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